Diversity's Next Challenges

June 1, 2010

In the early 1990s, two social psychologists conducted an experiment to see whether our society’s negative racial stereotypes affect the learning experience of students in our educational institutions. They selected a group of black and white Stanford undergraduates and gave them a test made up of items from the advanced Graduate Record Examination in literature. The students had been statistically matched for ability, and since most of them were sophomores, the GRE-based test was intentionally chosen so that it would be challenging and difficult for them.

The psychologists – Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson – wanted to see if there were differences in the way students of similar academic background but from different racial groups experienced a test that is supposed to be scientific and "objective." In particular, they wanted to see whether simple cues provided in the testing environment would affect the students’ performance. The cues they provided casually were intended to refer indirectly to negative social images; their goal was to see, in short, if negative social stereotypes were mere words, or if they had the power of sticks and stones (for a basic overview, see “Thin Ice”).

What they found was startling. When the test was given to the students as an abstract test of intellectual ability (the cue from the examiner echoing social prejudices about IQ tests), the black students in the group performed less well than the white students. When, however, they presented the same test as a study of "how certain problems are generally solved," with a clear statement that the task did not measure intellectual ability in general, the black students' performance improved dramatically and now their scores matched those of the white students.

Experiments such as this one have been carefully replicated by researchers in various countries and they consistently produce the same measurable effect – not only in the case of racial stereotypes but also those concerning gender and class. The series of experiments Steele and his colleagues conducted revealed to them that all our current beliefs about bolstering self-confidence and eliminating socially produced self-doubt are much less relevant to the learning context than we think.

Instead, what the black students revealed was that they were responding to their educational environment with "social mistrust.” “When they felt trust,” says Steele, summarizing the results of this series of experiments, the students “performed well regardless of whether we had weakened their self-confidence beforehand. And when they didn’t feel trust, no amount of bolstering of self-confidence helped." He goes on to suggest that educational policy needs to recognize how "different kinds of students may require different pedagogies of improvement."

Steele says that we need to think about “fostering racial trust” if we want to improve the educational environment for vast numbers of American college students. This proposal – and the groundbreaking research on which it is based – goes to the heart of the discussion of what we may call "the future of diversity." The proposal takes us beyond our current – perfectly justified – concern with providing more students "access" to college. It forces us to think about what our campuses feel like to those who come to learn.

Social trust or mistrust are not merely attitudinal matters, to be left up to those who are affected by them, that is, the students; trust and mistrust – as we see in the case of the cues provided in the psychology experiments – are produced by our actions as teachers and administrators, and they reveal much more than our personal intentions as individuals. As many have argued in recent decades, trust is a social achievement and it takes us beyond our contractual obligations to be legally fair. Trust and mistrust are often defining characteristics of the environment in which we all live and function, and they can exist even in the absence of overt discrimination. So the real question is whether our students experience our educational institutions as being trustworthy.

Far from being content with recruiting greater numbers of socially underprivileged students, staff, and faculty, we need to see the ideal of social trust as a positive challenge to re-imagine the culture of our campuses, to envision a culture that will be more conducive to learning precisely because it is more open, democratic, and genuinely attentive to the experiences of different social groups. Diversity needs to be conceptualized not only from the perspective of access (admissions, recruitment, financial aid, etc.) but also – and equally importantly – from the perspective of the campus as a learning environment for different kinds of learners.

A forthcoming volume, The Future of Diversity: Academic Leaders Reflect on American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan) contains essays by academic leaders from a variety of American institutions on both these perspectives – access and the culture of learning. How do we broaden access to more kinds of social groups? How do we make our campuses more genuinely inclusive? How do we conceive social diversity as a valuable educational resource, rather than a problem to be managed or solved? How, finally, do we replace the mistrust many feel – and the inequality of access, opportunity, and experience it points to – with the kind of social trust on which all learning, and indeed the very ideal of democracy, depends? These are big and general questions, and the prominent academics who have contributed to this volume – university and foundation presidents, deans, leading scholars -- address them by drawing in part on their own specific experiences. They review what we have all learned from recent history – from the Supreme Court’s verdict on the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action to experiments on various campuses involving students from different cultural backgrounds – and they make concrete proposals for the future.

One of the challenges is to imagine a diverse campus as a valuable and unique learning environment, one that is in effect a social laboratory of sorts. Nancy Cantor – president of Syracuse University and former provost of the University of Michigan (during the critical period when the recent Supreme Court cases were being prepared) -- argues that university campuses have a special role to play in building the future of our multicultural and diverse society. Cantor argues that "healthy group dynamics" are critical "if we are to open up our institutions (and the power within them and conferred by them) and transcend the destructive fault lines of our society, thereby building the capacity for – and trust in – democratic culture beyond the campus." Cantor’s central point is that the campus culture needs to be organized in such a way that it respects the "delicate balance between strong group identification and vibrant inter-group exchange."

Like many psychologists, Cantor affirms the importance of group identification for the psychological well-being of those who are from socially marginalized groups, thus implicitly rejecting the popular notion that group identities are necessarily opposed to the non-parochial ethical perspective required of citizens of a democratic society. She also focuses on the importance of "normalizing" conflict, of raising – through "mutual respect and healthy interaction" – our consciousness of conflict so that we see it as a potential source of knowledge, a vitally important knowledge in a democratic society that thrives on difference (of background, of views, of life experiences).

A second issue arises when we think about the roles played by different kinds of universities, especially non-elite and regional institutions. Campuses like Rutgers-Newark or Michigan-Dearborn serve first-generation immigrant families and provide an educational experience in which socio-cultural diversity defines the learning environment, one that reflects the rich diversity of both American society in general and the increasingly globalized world in which we all live. But Steven Diner, chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, points out that while his alumni recognize the value of this environment and talk about it eloquently, the mainstream culture seems to lack the tools with which to measure its value. Daniel Little, chancellor of Michigan-Dearborn, makes this point in more general terms. While elite status and financial resources are valuable, he says, they do not guarantee a superior educational experience, for a quality education depends on a combination of factors, chief among which is the conscious planning and coordination by various levels of the campus leadership – the administration and the faculty. Diner and Little point to the crucial role played in any democratic society by regional and urban institutions in providing access and social mobility to immigrants and those from lower income groups. If the goal is to reduce social inequality through education, then regional and urban universities need to be both recognized and supported by policy makers at not just the state level but also nationally.

The scandalous truth is of course that American educational policy is weak precisely on a national level, since funding of public universities has generally been left entirely up to the states. What the recent economic downturn makes clear, however, is that American higher education, which has traditionally been the engine of the country’s economic development, has fallen behind dramatically, and that is mainly because of the erosion of federal funding and our myopic social policies about lower income groups. As the economist Paul Krugman points out in The New York Times, education and social mobility suffer because of largely invisible economic policy decisions, the net effect of which is that American higher education is no longer available to the population at large. Krugman considers this predictable result of myopic national policy to be “a large gratuitous waste of human potential,” and calls for Congress to take appropriate measures. “Education made America great,” he points out, and goes on to issue a timely and urgent warning: “neglect of education can reverse the process.”

Noting the need to address social inequality in the broader national context, Eugene Tobin [former president of Hamilton College and co-author – with William Bowen and Martin Kurzweil -- of Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (2005)] recommends that at least the top universities, private and public, consider putting a "thumb on the admission scale" by taking low-income status at least as seriously as we now take race. Research shows that students from less affluent backgrounds, once admitted, go on to do at least as well as those from more affluent ones. Broader considerations of social justice would necessitate that colleges and universities take class seriously in their definition of social diversity. Income-based preferences in admission, Tobin argues, should be seen as a necessary complement to the race-based programs that have been so successful in diversifying the major colleges and universities that have initiated such programs in recent decades.

All these attempts to imagine a more genuinely diverse academic campus have an interesting implication: academic "excellence" can be achieved only if we recognize the social conditions in which learning takes place. Our efforts to promote excellence on our campuses are closely tied to our ideals of democracy and diversity, and these efforts cannot be successful if we do not question our deeper assumptions about what success is and what produces an effective culture for the work of scholarship and teaching. For such work is not done by abstract individuals but by socially embodied beings, with socially produced strengths and vulnerabilities, and any attempt to think about the educational culture of a campus must focus on the actual experiences of faculty and students from a variety of social backgrounds. This requires a rethinking of some of our most basic theoretical assumptions as well as a reexamination of our traditional habits and practices.

One of these theoretical assumptions concerns the nature and value of what is called "objectivity." It is possible to worry that while taking the subjective experiences of students and faculty of color, for instance, into account may improve the campus culture in some respects, it compromises the objectivity of our approach as senior faculty or administrators. That worry is based on the understanding of objectivity as pure “neutrality,” and there are reasons to doubt that this conflation of objectivity with neutrality is intellectually justified. Modern philosophers often talk about the need to see objectivity as a context-sensitive value rather than the product of an abstract and a-contextual attitude of neutrality. So in contexts where unfairness is built into the environment because of half-conscious habits and practices that echo and reinforce prejudices prevalent in the social mainstream, genuine objectivity may itself be the product of a conscious effort to examine our assumptions rather than of a neutral approach – as evidenced, for instance, in "color blind" or "gender blind" policies. What seems fair and just to a member of one social group is not in fact experienced in the same way by members of a group that is, say, the target of negative social stereotypes.

One of the most revealing experiments done by Steele’s colleagues showed that what targets of negative stereotype threat respond to most favorably is a clear message that while the test is tough the evaluation will be fair – that the students’ social identities will not be a factor in the way their academic performance is judged. In thinking about the culture of a genuinely inclusive learning environment, then, the first great challenge for us may be to remind ourselves that what is needed is not so much sentimental partiality as -- ultimately -- greater objectivity. The assurance of genuine fairness can restore social trust. The future of diversity on our campuses depends on our thinking hard about restoring to education and learning the healthy environment of mutual trust and respect in which alone they can thrive. And while social forces beyond our immediate control do much to diminish this trust, the joy – indeed the magic and mystery – of learning is that it can transcend such forces. The world pervades our classrooms and our laboratories, but it does not wholly determine what can be achieved in them.

Both recent research in social psychology and the academic leaders I have been quoting suggest that there is an urgent need for all of us to coordinate our efforts to re-imagine our campuses and to work toward making them the laboratories that they can be -- of the future society we hope to build. Social diversity is about more than just numbers. Most importantly, it is not a "problem" to be solved, but rather an enormous social and educational resource that is waiting to be tapped. From admissions to sports to the designing of the curriculum and of non-curricular interactions, the practical and theoretical challenges posed by a campus’s “diversity” are the gateways to a more democratic national future.


Satya P. Mohanty is professor of English at Cornell. He is director of the national Future of Minority Studies Summer Institute, funded since 2005 through grants by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Future of Diversity, which he co-edited with the philosopher Daniel Little (chancellor of the University of Michigan at Dearborn), will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2010.

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